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Deadly bird flu found in Myanmar

The deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu was detected for the first time in poultry in Myanmar and Cameroon, officials in the two nations say.
A bus passes under a cable lined with pigeons in Yangon
A bus packed with passengers passes under a cable lined with pigeons in a downtown residential area in Yangon, Myanmar. Myanmar has found the H5N1 bird flu virus in chickens, but there was no sign of human infection, a U.N. official said.Aung Hla Tun / Reuters
/ Source: news services

Myanmar has reported what is believed to be the secretive country’s first case of bird flu, while Afghanistan was checking on Monday to see if it is the latest country to be infected by the deadly disease.

Underscoring bird flu’s rapid spread around the globe, Cameroon became the fourth African country to report an outbreak of bird flu on Sunday, joining Nigeria, Egypt and Niger, which have reported cases of the H5N1 flu virus in poultry.

In a matter of weeks, H5N1 has spread deep into Europe, taken hold in Africa and flared anew in Asia.

German authorities said on Monday that seven dead ducks in a Bavarian poultry farm were found to have a form of influenza and were being tested for bird flu, in what could be Germany’s first case of the virus in domestic fowl.

Military-ruled Myanmar is seen by some international health experts as a potential black hole in the global fight against the disease but a U.N. official in Yangon said authorities were cooperating.

Another U.N. official in Bangkok said there were no signs of human infections from bird flu.

“They have carried out some tests and they believe that they have identified H5N1,” Laurence Gleeson, of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Bangkok, told Reuters.

The case emerged on March 8 after 112 chickens died on a farm near Mandalay, about 430 miles north of Yangon.

Officials destroyed a flock of 780 birds and sent samples for testing at government laboratories in Mandalay and Yangon.

In impoverished Afghanistan, the government and the United Nations said the H5 subtype of the bird flu virus has been found in a small number of poultry but it was not yet known if it was the deadly H5N1 strain.

“H5 has been found in five samples in Afghanistan. The N sub-type, we’re expecting that to be determined, possibly in a matter of hours,” U.N. spokesman Adrian Edwards told the news conference.

The FAO said there was a high risk the virus was the deadly H5N1 strain.

Afghanistan had satisfactory facilities to detect outbreaks but containing them would be a concern, said FAO representative Serge Verniau.

“For three years donors have been neglecting the public veterinary services,” he told Reuters.

The H5N1 strain of bird flu has killed or forced the slaughter of more than 140 million chickens and ducks across Asia since 2003, and has recently spread to Europe, Africa and the Middle East. So far there has been no human bird flu case in Africa, but health officials are concerned that its spread in birds across the continent, where millions live in close contact with poultry, will increase the possibility the virus will mutate to become transmissible between humans.

The World Health Organization has confirmed 176 people infected with bird flu around the world since 2003, of whom 97 have died. This does not include a possible cluster of 10 cases in Azerbaijan that were still being investigated.

As bird flu spreads in Africa, experts are concerned that the world’s poorest continent, already battling HIV/AIDS and malaria, is ill-equipped to combat a new health threat.

Suspected poultry outbreaks in Gabon — which borders Cameroon to the north — Ethiopia, Gambia and Sierra Leone are also under investigation.

With help from the WHO, Myanmar’s Health Ministry has drawn up a pandemic preparedness plan, but resources are a big problem.

Years of mismanagement have crippled the economy and, despite a relatively large number of foreign-trained doctors, there is a dire lack of infrastructure in a country where military spending far outstrips that on health care.

Afghanistan, too, lacks equipment to battle bird flu and highlights the threat from the disease in Asia where, like Africa, many people and poultry live side by side.

A top-level meeting would be held on Monday to draw up a coordinated response, which would include quarantining areas where the birds were found and culling.

In China, experts are being urged to conduct random tests on live poultry in its retail markets after a study found that some apparently healthy chickens, ducks and geese were infected with the deadly H5N1 virus.

The calls follow the death of a man from H5N1 this month, who fell sick after visiting poultry markets in southern Guangdong province.